Philosophy, Politics

A few brief thoughts on the recent terrorist atrocities

It’s been an awful few months for our country. Men, women and children have lost their lives. The number of victims might be counted, but the pain of the families who lost someone will never be quantifiable.

I was in two minds whether to write anything on this at all – in the face of such tragedy, words can seem so glib and, really, what is there left to say? What can be said at all? But I’ve decided, for my own catharsis and for the very few readers who find their way to this tiny pocket of the internet, I’m going to share some brief thoughts.

We hear a lot that ‘the terrorists won’t win’. And, if you believe that these terrorists have any sort of long-term political goals, that’s probably right. Western Democracy is never going to curtail to the whims of an oppressive death cult.

Some may say, however, that the terrorists’ goals aren’t even that sophisticated – their intentions are merely to cause harm, destroy lives and stir up fear. And in that way, I guess, they kind of can win…but only because their goals are so pathetic.

The truth is, if you are determined to go through with it, devastating lives is easy. Most of us have access to a car or a kitchen knife. If we so choose, any one of us could go out there and cause unthinkable pain. Such a cowardly act only works, however, by exploiting the trust of our civilisation. We are a free country, we have entered into a social contract to trust each other – our streets aren’t designed to stop us causing harm because basic human respect for life is assumed. That’s how a free society works. Only a coward would abuse that trust and take innocent lives. Destruction is easy, pathetic and weak.

What is difficult, and what these terrorists have absolutely no capacity to do, is to build…and just look at what we’ve built. We have a welfare state to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. We have a National Health Service to look after the sick, regardless of wealth. We are a country made up of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. What’s more, we don’t merely tolerate these differences, we celebrate them as one of the things that make us great. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to show love. Sometimes we disagree about how best to do it.

But, as a country, we have public servants who go beyond the call of duty to protect and heal us. We’ve produced policeman, paramedics and civilians who, in the face of unspeakable danger, risk (and, in some cases, lose) their own lives trying to save others. Not, it must be said, for any gain or reward, but simply because they couldn’t bear to stand by and watch another human suffer. It is through the actions of these people that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

On Sunday night, Manchester held a concert to celebrate unity and love, in memory of those who had lost their lives. This concert was set-up by a 23 year old pop star, herself deeply affected by these events, who did what little she could to help a city and a nation heal. This concert raised over two million pounds, as ordinary people volunteered their money to help others in need. And what was so cathartic about the concert, beyond just the outpouring of love, was to see people having fun, caught up in the music. There’s a reason these terrorists have no regard for art and music – it’s because they’re acts of creation, and all a terrorist can do is destroy. Creativity itself becomes glorious defiance. Whereas terrorism is an act of deep jealously and emptiness, and in that small way I almost pity them.

It’s important to be critical of ourselves. To create a just society is so much harder than causing destruction. It’s vital to recognise our flaws, our hypocrisies and our deep, dark moral failings. But it’s equally important to, once in a while, take a look at just how far we’ve come. Just look at what we’ve built. We’re protectors of each other. We are creators. We are artists. We are free. That’s how we win.

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Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

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Philosophy, religion

Fumblings in the dark (or the appropriate response to the limitation of human reason)

Imagine, if you will, waking up in a pitch black dark room. You don’t know where you are or how you got there, nor can you see what’s in the room because of the darkness. You fumble anxiously for your phone. You need a light source. Finally you hold the phone up, but the light is weak, barely illuminating what’s in front. You have absolutely no idea where the room ends.

Here’s a question for you; what’s at the end of the room? Presumably you’ll think the answer’s obvious – ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Now, imagine the same scenario but this time you wake up with your friend, Doris (yes, Doris…it’s my thought experiment and I’m allowed to have anachronistic names.)
“Don’t worry,” she says, noticing your heavy breathing. “It’s quite alright.”
“How can you be sure?” you ask.
“At the end of this room is a little lamp and, sitting right next to it, a really cute little kitten. You’ll love it.”
You breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank goodness. How do you know all that?”
“I just do,” shrugs Doris.
Your body begins to go cold as the hope slowly drains.
“What do you mean ‘you just do’?”
“I have faith,” Doris replies.
“But you’ve got no evidence,” you say, staring into the dark abyss.
“No,” laughs Doris, “that’s why it’s called faith, silly.”
You shake your head, unable to believe what you’re hearing.
“Besides,” she continues, “do you have any reason to think there isn’t a really cute kitten at the end of the room?”

In this scenario, do you think Doris is being sensible in her assertion? Let’s come back to this later.

 

The limitations of reason

“I know one thing; that I know nothing”, the famous Socratic paradox goes. Indeed if there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of, it’s that we know very little. And I’m not even talking about the big questions, think of all the many known facts you have no knowledge of. Think of everything in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, history, geography, astronomy etc. that you don’t know (of course most of the things you don’t know, you won’t know you don’t know.)

It’s likely that each of us, as individuals, know considerably less than even 1% of everything that IS known. Isn’t that humbling? Sometimes we’re so used to our own bubble that we forget how DEEPLY ignorant we really are as individuals. It’s for this reason that I believe so strongly in the necessity of experts when it comes to beginning to make sense of the world, even if appealing to authority is hardly foolproof. In a world of growing egos, ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and stupid world leaders, the collective good that comes from trusting people specialising in a field and becoming informed experts really is at threat.

But, deeper still, there are questions to which reason simply doesn’t seem to offer an answer. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Does life have a purpose? These ideas ask questions beyond the physical and are, perhaps by necessity, outside the capacity of either the scientific method or human reason (unless you’re clinging onto the ontological argument for dear life, but I’m guessing most of you aren’t.)

It’s absolutely necessary that we accept this limitation – there is no point in pretending otherwise. In this way we are like that person trapped in the darkened room unable to see what’s at the end (and of course, we don’t have the liberty of being able to walk up and take a look for ourselves.) But so few of us actually act in this way – instead will fill this gap of knowledge with gods and demons, ghosts and spirits, meaning and purpose. We ‘do a Doris’, so to speak.

 

Is this a responsible reaction to the limitations of human reason?

Regardless of whatever motivates us to fill these gaps, the question becomes is it responsible to do so? In the case of Doris and her cute cat, do you think she is right to believe in the moggy at the end of the room? Presumably not, because there is absolutely no reason to think there is a kitten there.

And what of Doris’ reply, that there is no evidence to the contrary? Well that doesn’t seem satisfying either, you could come up with just about any theory (there’s an alien, an old man, a rocking horse, a T-Rex etc.) and the same would still be true. As is widely agreed, the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, batty old Doris in this case. If Doris can’t justify her belief in the cat then she can’t expect others to believe her.

It’s because this all seems so obvious to me, that I find it hard to understand why rationalists and those who ask for evidence are so often portrayed as arrogant. There’s a definite imagining of the stuffy-old sceptic who thinks he knows everything. In fact I watched The Conjuring 2 recently (which I rather enjoyed, even if it has cost me a few hours sleep) and they portray the academics who don’t believe in hauntings as closed minded fools who arrogantly refuse to look beyond their noses. But this is all very misleading.

A true sceptic or rationalist is not assuming they know everything at all, quite the opposite in fact. They are simply asking for evidence of these claims in much the same way you would ask of evidence from dear old Doris. In fact if Doris is really convinced of her claims and judges you for not believing them, it is actually Doris who is extremely arrogant, as she is making the claim that she knows something extraordinary that nobody else has been able to prove. It’s her making the big claims about what’s at the end of the room who is presumptuous, not the person simply asking for some proof.

And so, it seems to me, in the face of the limitations of human reason, the answer is not just to plump for whatever belief system you fancy, but to stop and humbly acknowledge we simply don’t know. What’s at the end of the room? I don’t know.

Now, that’s not to say that everybody’s view is suddenly equal. In the case of Doris, her prediction is very specific and therefore more likely to be wrong. Just in the way that saying there’s another living being in this room gives greater probability to her claim than specifically insisting it’s a cat, the same is also true when talking of a God –‘ there may be a conscious designer of the universe’ is more probable than talking about a specific God who has a problem with homosexuality or shellfish (of course in both cases you’d still need a reason to make any sort of claim like this at all.)

It’s also possible that certain claims become less likely in virtue of the absence of evidence. When Doris states there’s a kitten at the end of the room, it would eventually cause us to doubt her further if we never hear a ‘meow’ (or any sound at all.) Equally, whilst we can never say for certain that psychic powers don’t exist, the fact that no scientifically controlled experiment has ever produced evidence of psychic powers should cause us some suspicion. Absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, but we should be alarmed when evidence we may expect to see isn’t there.

But, in many ways, they are nuances for a greater discussion. The simple point at this moment is the mature response to the limitation of human reason is not making something up, as Doris does, but instead remaining absolutely open to any possibility if the evidence presents itself. And, if the question is beyond the capacity of human reason, simply remaining agnostic altogether.

 

What about faith?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been having an interesting discussion with someone about their beliefs and suddenly it becomes a dead-end. Why? Well I’m fascinated by what people believe (that’s part of the reason I did Philosophy and Theology as a degree) but I’m even more interested in why they believe it, I think that’s the much meatier part of the discussion.

Yet, when someone evokes ‘faith’ as an answer it stops the conversation dead. In fact, often it’s said with a satisfied smile, as if faith is a virtue I haven’t quite ascended to yet. But in truth, if your definition of faith is ‘believing something for no reason’, that’s not virtuous, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, but it’s true. Faith, when defined in such a way, is just a crutch to hold onto beliefs that you know rationally you should do away with.

It’s not surprising we fall into this trap of using faith in such a way. For some time ‘faith’ has been defined as ‘believing without reason’ by certain religious groups and people mistake it for a supporting tenet of organised religion (ancient and, therefore, wise.) But, in actual fact, I remain far from convinced that this definition of faith is something the ancients would particularly recognise. It’s a big topic for another day, but I can’t help but doubt that the use of the word in an ancient world, pre-enlightenment and the scientific method, would mean the same thing as it does today post those movements.

Even a brief glance at the use of the word in the Abrahamic religions shows it unlikely was used to denote blindly believing something, in fact it seems largely about ‘faith in God’, not ‘faith in God’s existence.’ That’s a clear distinction. If I said I have faith in my parents, for example, you would presume I’m talking about trusting their ability to deliver, not blind belief in their existence. Throughout most the Hebrew Scriptures it’s taken for granted that God exists, so faith is almost always about trusting in his word as opposed to trusting in his existence.

And indeed, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’. Presumably this indicates some kind of rational persuasion, not an insistence on blind acceptance.

I do plan to one day look at this issue of faith in MUCH more depth, but a brief skimming of the subject indicates that calling on ‘faith’ to defend belief without reason is not some virtuous religious tradition but likely a reasonably modern definition of the word, re-defined for a post-enlightenment age where the existence of God is substantially called into question.

The true definition of ‘faith’ throughout religious traditions is likely going to be a lot richer and a lot more beautiful than the tacky gift shop version that is often bandied around today.

 

Why does this matter?

When all is said and done, you may wonder why any of this matters.

Well, I think we’re encouraged today to have opinions on things, and pushed not to ‘sit on the fence’ (which, I think, is often a perfectly fine place to be.) Plus there’s a natural human inclination to attribute meaning and a narrative to our existence. But to begin to adequately form a worldview, we need to make sure the very building blocks on which it’s formed is sound, yet seldom do we invest time analysing them.

And this is not a conclusion by the way, it’s very much just a beginning. You might think, based on this post, that I’m totally agnostic, but that’s not strictly true, I actually have theistic leanings. But it’s so important to make clear (to ourselves, if no-one else) our attitude to reason, to its limitations and our approach to evidence, before we can even begin to start making a positive case for any particular worldview.

So in conclusion…we need to be humble inquisitors, not a Doris.

 

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Philosophy, religion

21 questions I would ask the Christian God

Imagine you could ask God anything…what would it be?

Here are my 21 questions I would ask the Christian God*:

  • Why does bad food taste so good? Why is chocolate so irresistible, whereas vegetables taste bland? If you made a carrot taste of chocolate, and chocolate taste of carrot, I’d be fit as a fiddle. Also, why does the nicest food in the world have to come from suffering dead animals and also give us cancer?
  • Why make your existence so ambiguous? If your aim is to get people to believe in you, just drop in and say ‘hey’ once in a while. Leaving the world to look exactly as it would if there were no God is a risky game.
  • Why are so many of your followers absolute bellends?
  • Do you actually have a problem with homosexuality? If so, isn’t it a bit creepy you care so much about what people do with their genitals? If you don’t have an issue with it, why not make that clear in the Bible instead of leaving ambiguous passages that would be used to oppress minorities for thousands of years? Same question for women and slavery.
  • Why have you allowed four Transformers movies to be made? You’re meant to be a loving God.
  • If we have freewill, and we act badly, isn’t that, well…a design flaw? Don’t want to point fingers or anything…
  • What’s the deal with the devil? Like…is he real? If so, it’s kind of super irresponsible to give him the kind of free reign he has. If he’s just a character, he’s a bland villain. What’s his motivation? To try and fight an all powerful God and be a general dick? I just don’t believe it, you know. Maybe a writers class would help…
  • On a similar note, if a thick person raised in a religious family never questions anything, he goes to Heaven, but if a smart person can’t find sufficient reason to believe, they go to Hell? Does that make being smart a hindrance and being dumb an advantage? Isn’t that a bit stupid?
  • Do you know what I’m going to pray before I pray it? If so, is there any point in me praying? Also, why don’t you just do good things without us asking? When you have the power to stop terrible things happening but don’t, that’s kind of being a dick. Like, watch Spiderman, that explains the whole ‘power and responsibility’ thing.
  • Speaking of which – spiders…what the actual fuck were you thinking?
  • Why evolution? That’s a really slow and cruel way to get to the point we’re at. More than 99% of species that ever existed are now extinct. Why not just make us as we are now and save a few billion years? Also, doesn’t evolution totally retcon Genesis?
  • Similar point, why make animals that rely on eating each other? Why aren’t we all made vegetarian? If animals have to eat each other, why make them conscious of their pain?
  • Have you ever thought about issuing a statement about all those things ‘done in your name’? Good PR I would have thought.
  • Will there ever be a sequel to the Bible? Sequels are all the rage these days. Don’t worry, it doesn’t even have to be as good…just needs to be bigger. Maybe you could build up to a Religious Cinematic Universe and have Jesus team up with other religious figures (not naming names because…frightened) to fight off immorality, or fig trees.
  • The Book of Revelation…what’s that all about? Can deities get high?
  • Why didn’t you send Jesus in a time when there were video cameras as opposed to a time when we have to trust written sources? That way intellectually challenged half-wits wouldn’t be able to deny there was at least ‘a Jesus’ (well, some of the loons might say it was holograms or staged or something, but you can’t convince everyone.)
  • Also, Jesus kind of thought the world was ending soon…he did, right? I’m not judging, we all make mistakes.
  • Do you actually care when privileged people in the West pray for trivial things? We would totally understand if you wanted to spend time helping out impoverished nations and fighting infant mortality instead. I imagine it’s like having one child asking for a loan for a lamborghini whilst you’re caring for his terminally ill brother!
  • Do you like being praised? People constantly telling you how great you are (and going pretty crazy whilst they’re at it) could get awkward, I imagine.
  • Bourbon or custard cream?

 

What questions would you ask God?

*These are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I’m full aware that on coming face-to-face with an all-powerful being I would be awe inspired and probably shitting it. 

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Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.

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Philosophy, religion

The problem with prayer

 

Do you pray?

You wouldn’t be alone. A survey as recent as 2013 found that six out of seven Brits believed that prayers could be answered.

But I’ve been thinking recently, how exactly would prayer work? As in, how would God actually go about answering your prayer?

prayer-beadsYes, if you haven’t guessed by now, this blog post is going to be highly speculative but I want to tackle it simply because people talk about prayer as if it’s simple, ask and receive, but a little bit of thought shows that the issues it raises are REALLY complicated.

In our society there’s such a lack of nuance and complexity, and issues are dumbed-down to the point that they have no meaning. We fake nuance but we seldom mean it. Sometimes when I hear a religious person say to me ‘God’s not some bearded guy in the sky’, I suspect they’re really thinking ‘he probably doesn’t have a beard’.

And prayer is one of those issues that is talked about in religious circles (and in the mainstream I suppose) with seemingly little thought as to what is really being said, so I wanted to try and ask a few initial questions to get my own mind rolling when contemplating prayer.

I’m not going to be discussing whether prayer works or how you would even know that a prayer has been answered. I’m sure we’ve all got a Christian friend who says something like ‘God blessed us with a new house’ and it’s not entirely clear how God could be involved in that at all (I’m sure the seller, your buyer, the estate agent and the removal men helped but, hey, why not imagine an all powerful deity contributed as well!)

I’m also not going to explore the ethical questions raised by prayer, such as why an omnipotent, benevolent God would interfere in the world to solve first world issues but entirely ignore the plight of the devastated in Syria or the masses who die in Third World countries from curable diseases. (Plus no-one could tackle those issues better than Tim Minchin does in this fantastic song about healing.)

I simply want to look at the question of how God would go about answering a prayer, and I’m going to do so through a fictional character called Bob.

Bob and the parking space

Bob had spent two years in a dead-end job and, after a particularly harrowing day, decided to take life by the horns and start applying for other jobs. After a while of no luck he stumbled across his dream job, an editorial position in the city. He was a little under-qualified but went for it anyway, what harm could it do?

A few days pass and he hears nothing but one fateful afternoon he receives a phone call, the phone call. The company want him in for an interview. Bob is elated, confident he can perform well in front of the interview panel. He lives quite far from the city so he sets his alarm a few hours earlier than normal, to give him time to drive in.

parking-spaceHe wakes up the morning of the interview but something awful has happened. During the night there had been a power cut, meaning his alarm had reset. Shit, he thinks, scrambling for his watch. He breathes a sigh of relief. If there’s no traffic, he should be OK. Unfortunately, there is a traffic jam and Bob all but gives up hope. But then, things start to get moving. He checks his watch. It should take him about 15 minutes to get into the city and his interview is in 20 minutes. If he can find a parking space nearby he might just be able to make it on time.

And then Bob does something which he doesn’t normally do. He prays. ‘God’, he says, palms sweating on the wheel, ‘I know I don’t pray much, but please, please let there be a space when I arrive’.

As he pulls up outside the offices, he can’t believe it. Right outside the front door is an empty parking space. “Thank you God” he exclaims, and heads off to his interview. Bob gets the job.

Let’s assume he is right (I know, big assumption!) and God arranged things so that Bob could get a parking space. There are several big questions to ask.

How exactly would God have arranged this?

So, assuming that God did intervene, and the parking space wasn’t always going to have been empty, what would God have done to ensure the space was empty?

Perhaps he changed the mind of the person who would have parked there otherwise (and anyone else who might have thought about taking it). But isn’t that a troubling idea? If God can change the mind of a person to suit his own agenda, then doesn’t that have terrifying repercussions for our freewill and autonomy? Can God simply change our minds at random? Unless you’re a Calvinist, and I assume most rational people aren’t, surely a God who has such little regard for humanity’s freewill is terrifying (and if you’re a Calvinist I guess it doesn’t matter what you think because you were always going to think that, there’s nothing you can do to change it and God thinks that’s good.)

So perhaps God intervenes in a more subtle way. Maybe, on these occasions, God intervenes by breaking the closed cycle of nature to influence events. It’s easy to say, but, when you think about it, difficult to imagine. How would she do it? If we use a really direct on the nose example, maybe he could increase the wind in such a way that it causes a tree to fall and land on the car at the home of the man who would have had Bob’s parking space otherwise. At least that way God doesn’t have to change someone’s mind directly but merely uses nature as a tool to manipulate events to her will. It’s still pretty terrifying but less so than a God who can change your thoughts.

But just looking at this question in the most basic way possible, it begins to show that answering prayers must be harder than simply agreeing or disagreeing to a request – God would have to interfere with the lives of other, unconsenting ordinary people to achieve his aim.

But there’s a bigger, more interesting question yet to come…

Has God just changed the future?

If God answers the prayer and ensures there’s a parking space for Bob, has God just changed the future? If Bob had never of prayed would someone else have had that parking space? Might someone else (let’s call her Mary) have ended up getting her dream job?

If this is the case, then God would be changing the future. Yet how would this work in practice? Might God give special preferential treatment to those who pray. Perhaps, if Bob had never prayed, he would have been late for the interview and Mary would have got the job. But, because Bob prayed, God changed the future to help out Bob. Poor Mary lost out because she didn’t pray. Is that fair?

Or, perhaps God being omniscient means he can see every possible future and actualises (or causes) the best one. But shouldn’t a loving God be doing this anyway? And wouldn’t it be unlikely that exactly what Bob asks for leads to the best possible future?

Most of us have watched enough Doctor Who to know that changing the future is a dangerous business. Changing one small thing (like Bob getting the job over Mary) could change history forever – at the very least it would certainly change both their lives, their families’ lives and the lives of the people around them. The consequences of this could echo further into the future. So, does God storm in breezily and answer prayers and to hell with the consequences for everyone else, or does she think this stuff through? Wouldn’t that make God like the ultimate Time Lord, having to work out which moments of time are in flux and which moments can’t be changed?

Perhaps you could get around this by saying God was always going to answer that prayer and therefore the future has never changed. But this raises the big question, if God knows everything we’re going to do, like pray to him, how can we possibly have freewill? One possible answer, put forward by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, is that God knows what we’re going to do, but we’re not necessarily going to do it (basically we’re going to do it, but we’re not predestined to do it). This seems reasonable enough to me, but when it comes to God knowing what he’s going to do, surely that does deny him agency. God knew, for an eternity, he was going to answer the prayer? So God would never have willfully chosen to answer the prayer, he just would always have known he was going to…even when no-one even existed to pray. Ah, it makes the head ache!

You might try to get around it and say God’s omniscience is limited by freewill – even an all knowing God couldn’t know in advance what an autonomous person with true freewill will decide. This certainly weakens the definition of ‘all knowing’ that most religious people subscribe to, but it’s a bit more comprehendible. The trouble is, that would make God interactions with the world ‘well intentioned’ at best. She could intervene, but would have to cross her metaphorical fingers that it actually was for the best. Would it even be responsible for such a God to answer people’s prayers? Would it really be helpful or dangerous meddling?

It does surprise me that more Christian apologists don’t fall back on these questions when asked why God hasn’t answered a particular prayer. Instead of saying something glib like ‘God knew that wouldn’t be best for you’ (which reveals the egotistical centre of so much petitionary prayer), you could just say ‘God didn’t answer your prayer because it might damage the causal nexus and cause a worse future for thousands of others.’

The problem of prayer

If you’re waiting for an answer or a flowing conclusion then you’ve greatly overestimated me. I’m sure there are philosophers and theologians who have dealt with many of the questions I’ve raised far more authoritatively, but really I was just interested in raising some of the many issues thrown up by a God who interacts with the world.

Many of these questions are either too complicated for human minds, or they may just be questions which make no sense because they don’t correspond to any real reality.

It is a reminder though that when we talk of prayer, we tend to think of it as taking place in a vacuum. After all, what would be so hard about an all powerful God providing a parking space for one day? But when we think just what it would take for a simple prayer like that to be answered, then we might show a little more humility in exclaiming what a God has or has not done in our lives.

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Film, Gaming, Philosophy

Pokémon grow…up?

(Apologies for the tortured title!)

Pokémon feels like the craze that just won’t give up. When I was at school and the trading cards were huge, Pokémon felt like it was everywhere and yet, even then, I wouldn’t have dreamed that fifteen years later it would still be a ‘thing’.

And make no mistake, whilst I’m sure many kids are playing the game, a whole load of people from my generation are also playing it – clever ‘twenty-somethings’ whose opinions I respect have taken to the streets to collect fictional monsters.

I don’t want to retread tired arguments over whether this is a good or bad thing. For every person thinking it’s something an adult should be ashamed of, there are others who will point out that it encourages exercise, meeting up and is a celebration of the human imagination.

I’m more interested in the deeper question that is really brought up by those who denounce it as a legitimate form of adult entertainment. Because, make no mistake, that issue gets deep fast.

How can you talk about the legitimacy of Pokémon Go without having a view on the role of pleasure and happiness (in general) in a healthy adult life?

And how can you have an understanding of the role of pleasure and happiness in a human life without some kind of personal view on what you think the meaning of life is?

Pokémon Go may also just be a symptom of what some people are calling ‘infantilisation’, essentially the idea that adulthood is becoming increasingly infantile and stuck in a state of arrested development. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while so Pokémon Go offers a fantastic springboard into a quite fascinating topic.

 

Is ‘infantilisation’ a real thing?

Pokémon Go might be the finest piece of evidence yet that our generation is having a little trouble growing up, but it’s something that people have been recognising for a while.

What was the last film you watched? Was it a sophisticated adult drama or a recent blockbuster predominately aimed at kids?

What was the last book you read? Was it an acknowledged classic or the latest YA phenomenon?

What was the last TV show you watched? Was it an educational documentary or the latest piece of reality garbage to be commissioned? Perhaps you don’t even watch TV anymore but can make do with three minute YouTube clips.

When you start to answer these questions honestly it, admittedly, builds up a picture of a generation who, at the very least, doesn’t have the most sophisticated palette.

A huge part of this, it’s suggested, has been the rise of ‘geek culture’. So many of the blockbuster properties were once something a niche group (identified as ‘geeks’) were into, but now these properties (mainly superhero movies) are mainstream. Everybody knows who Iron Man and Captain America are now, and chances are you’ve seen at least one of their movies.

As someone who would identify as a geek, who loves superhero movies and Doctor Who, I often have to reflect on what that says about me. Yet even Simon Pegg, who is something of a poster boy for geek culture, has recently said comic book movies are dumbing us down.

Movies are not the only things accused of having been infantilised, however. Some have suggested the food we now eat is aimed at kids, with so many restaurants offering burgers and chips/pizza as the staple dish. And what about adult colouring books? Is the term itself something of an oxymoron?

And now we have Pokémon Go to add to the list, which has fully grown adults talking about the number of fictional animals they have captured on an app.

What, you may ask, might be responsible for this seeming arrested development?

Well one theory is that we begin living an ‘adult life’ much later now. A huge proportion of us go to university whereas a few decades ago we might have taken up a trade. Equally, with buying your first property being an ever increasingly difficult looking proposition, more of us are living with our parents for longer. This may be keeping us mollycoddled so we live a pseudo-adult life, plus it likely brings new financial benefits.

If you’re not paying off a mortgage or spending a high amount on rent, what do you spend your money on? Probably the latest phones, movies and game consoles. Perhaps consumerism itself is juvenile in nature (always wanting the next best thing), yet our lifestyles are becoming ever more comfortable with it.

So infantilisation is real then?

Well, probably, but not necessarily.

For infantilisation to be real, we would surely need to have a way to neatly delegate what is for children and what is for adults, which might be a harder job than initially thought.

So what make something childish?

A gut answer might be a thing is childish if it’s something you do as a child, but that seems too broad. There are loads of things we do as children that we continue to do as an adult. We eat, sleep and get dressed as children but it would be a strange view indeed that suggested those things are childish.

Perhaps then something is childish if it’s designed specifically for children? But again, this doesn’t seem satisfactory. It seems possible to me that a writer could write a book aimed at children and accidentally capture something that draws adults too. Equally, if the creator of Postman Pat decided the show was for adults, it wouldn’t stop it being weird to assume that’s really the case. Ultimately art becomes separate from the creator, so this doesn’t seem sufficient.

Actually, when you think about it, there’s not a clear, easy way to determine between ‘childish’ and ‘adult’. This is not to suggest that such a distinction doesn’t exist, but it does remind us the distinction isn’t always easy to make.

What does it mean for food to be ‘childish’? Who’s to say that colouring in isn’t something adults should do?

Perhaps these distinctions have more to do with snobbery than reason.

And it’s important to remember the narrative that we’re getting increasingly infantile is one that’s hard to empirically show, but all too easy to argue with anecdotes.

One might argue, for example, that infantilisation is what causes people to read Rowling instead of Dickens, but that forgets that Harry Potter was celebrated because it encouraged people to read who otherwise might not be reading at all. It was actually the reverse of infantilisation – this is why we must be cautious when making assumptions about such things.

 

Is infantilisation necessarily bad?

However, let’s assume that infantilisation is happening. Is it necessarily a bad thing?

If we think there really is a way to distinguish between ‘adult’ and ‘childish’, is there a reason to think a childish life is a worse one?

Would making such a claim imply a telos (purpose) to life?

Because, if we’re being honest, (you might want to whisper this), isn’t life a bit, well, meaningless? Doesn’t all the evidence point to the fact that our very existence is a freak accident, we live this bizarre life and then we die (and probably, unfortunately, don’t ever come back)? What kind of purpose could you extend to a life when you see it in these terms?

Two goals I would think still worth pursuing are:

  • Help others. Alleviate their suffering and contribute towards their pleasure.
  • Live as happy a life as you can.

In a world where purpose is not clear to see, living as happily as you can seems as good a creed as any.

And so, if Pokémon Go is what makes people happy, why should we object to it?

I myself can attest to the joy I experience watching a new episode of Doctor Who, it’s a genuine high for me. Should I feel that excited by it? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really mater to me. What does matter is it makes me feel happy, and in that sense genuinely makes my day-to-day life easier.

I guess the question is does the source of happiness really matter, as long as you are in fact happy? (Assuming, of course, that the source of happiness is not harming others.)

Does a ‘childish’ source of pleasure count less than an ‘adult’ one, even if the chemical response in the brain that causes the feeling of happiness is exactly the same?

If not, then is infantilisation just a change and not really a problem?

This comes close to my own view but then the thought experiment of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine comes to mind. The Experience Machine isn’t a million miles away from the idea of ‘The Matrix’, and is essentially a simulated reality which could be programmed to make you happy.

Would you prefer to be hooked up to the happiness machine or live a real life? If you choose the latter, then you are essentially saying that happiness is not the only intrinsically valuable thing – there’s a value to experiences which goes beyond how happy they make you.

This thought experiment is particularly potent in the wake of the first mainstream augmented reality game. Is Pokémon Go, and the way it blurs the distinction between real life and fantasy, just the first step towards the Experience Machine? Might augmented and virtual reality essentially offer us Nozick’s Experience Machine – might a virtual house, virtual world, heck, even virtual sex life one day be more pleasurable than the real thing?!

I don’t know, but it would feel somewhat counter-intuitive to say that those virtual experiences would be of the same value as real ones.

This is all a long way of coming round to the idea that perhaps what we need is not an ‘either/or’ approach but an approach of balance.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness? Probably not, because happiness is something to be valued.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness, at the expense of a well rounded adulthood? The answer to that is a bit more tricky (what is a ‘well rounded adulthood’?), but the answer might, in this case, be ‘perhaps’.

If a person spends more time on Pokémon Go, or watching Doctor Who, than, say, learning about the political system of their country, then that might be a problem (and let’s be honest, we all know a lot of people have probably plundered many more hours into a video game than they spent learning about the consequences of the recent EU referendum.)

But, here’s the thing, I rarely see evidence that those who play/watch ‘infantile’ things are in any way less engaged with the real world. It doesn’t follow that because I watch Marvel movies that I can’t also read political essays, or travel the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to suggest they’re often practiced exclusively.

Further still, there may well be a value to holding onto ‘childish’ things in a balanced adult life. For example, I find in Doctor Who an optimism and lack of cynicism which isn’t found in a lot of depressing and often nihilistic ‘adult’ TV programs. Plus a lot of things aimed at children ask really big questions because, after all, aren’t we most philosophical when we’re at our youngest, always asking how and why?

Adult dramas might be able to beautifully capture the minutia of a failing relationship breaking down, but kids stories are almost always about the fundamental forces of good and evil themselves.

Might it be that becoming an adult is not about rejecting what we enjoyed as kids, it’s just about widening what we consume? Playing Pokémon Go is fine, just make some time for looking over the news. Watching superhero movies is cool, but why not read a classic novel when you get back?

We don’t need to legitimatise children’s things and pretend they’re ‘adult’ (geek culture has often become ugly trying to do just that.)

Accept it, Pokémon Go (like superhero movies, like children’s books), is aimed at kids. And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, just accept it for what it is. Have a balanced diet. Use your imagination. Perhaps those who snub all forms of childhood joy are those with the most limited creative palettes.

And if there is a problem about infantilisation, remember, it’s a problem for our entire generation, not just Pokémon Go players. So before you share a condemning meme ask yourself, what childish activities do you partake in? Have you ever face swapped using an app? Do you watch kid’s movies? Read YA fiction? Then you’re guilty too, and let he without sin throw the first stone as a wise man may have once said.

Otherwise we’re just like children in a childish exchange ‘I’m more mature than you’, ‘No, I’m more mature than YOU’ *blows a raspberry.*

And if you NEVER embrace your inner child then…why not? Maybe it’s you who has the problem.

 

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